Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel

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Before I Say Goodbye

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2011 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

Mountains loomed on all sides, some closer, some in the distance, but always there. A presence that exuded safety and permanence and hinted at something deeper, something I couldn't explain but felt deep in my being. My soul. If I even had a soul, which I wasn't betting on.

I hadn't remembered the mountains like this, how they made me feel. I should probably have come back before now, at least to attend my mother's funeral. Except that I might not have been able to escape a second time—and back then, escape had been all that was important.

Well, not all. Dante Rushton had been important.

I couldn't think of him because it wouldn't change what had happened or why I was returning to Utah after all these years. The Dante I'd known twenty years ago had nothing to do with it. Who that boy had become, however, was another story.

"I can't believe you're forcing me to move to this . . . this place." Kyle's lips twisted in disgust. My daughter looked so much like I had at her age it was uncanny—white-blonde hair, thin, willowy figure, heart-shaped face that was trying to look older than the thirteen years since her birth. Her eyes were bluer than mine, taking after her no-good father who'd cut out on us, but the shape of them was mine, as was the light smattering of freckles on her face. "I mean, look at it, Mom. This place is a cave. All these mountains staring down at us, like they're going to fall and crush us to dirt. Maybe it'd be better if they did."

"They look like kings from a story," James told his older sister. His first name was actually Dante, after that first Dante I'd known as a child, given him in that magic euphoria that follows birthing. Except I soon found I couldn't call him Dante on a daily basis. So I called him by his middle name, James, which had been his father's last name. Since I hadn't married either of their fathers, both my children officially shared my maiden name, Crockett.

Kyle groaned. "I'm going to miss all my friends and the ocean. It stinks!"

"This is where my job is." I wiped beads of perspiration from my forehead. The air-conditioning in my pickup wasn't working well and had made the trip that much more joyful. "We have no

"It still stinks!"

"Yep, it does. Big time." She had no idea how much, but I would have to tell her soon.

"Leaving California for Utah. To live in an old house that no one has lived in for years. It's as bad as moving to Idaho and farming potatoes or something."

"I think it's p—uh, nice," James said
"Ha! You were going to say it looks pretty, weren't you?"

James blinked at the viciousness in her tone. He shrugged. "I know boys don't say that, but, well, it is kind of pretty." He was utterly defenseless, and I wasn't surprised to see all the fight leak from my daughter. James had that way with people. I hadn't found anyone who could derive pleasure from hurting him for any length of time. Not that I had any doubts this would eventually change. The world never stopped kicking. His seven-year-old innocence was one of the reasons I had to come home.

"I guess," Kyle said dully.

"And we get to have a dog." James's smile was back. "I've always wanted a dog. We never had a dog at our apartment."

Tears burned in my eyes. He could have all the animals he wanted, so long as it made him stay a little boy that much longer.

"I'd rather have a rabbit," Kyle said, relenting just a little. Enough.

"That's fine," I said. "But you'll have to figure out how to take care of it."

The old house in Spanish Fork looked nothing like I remembered. In my memories it had a much larger, darker presence. A being of ominous silence, of cringing at the screaming, of talking to only when talked to, of chores and wishing myself away. Now the house and its half acre were run-down, but it didn't hold the darkness. In fact, with some white paint and red trim, it would look nothing like the house I'd grown up in
"This is it?" Kyle said with another groan.

Her pain pierced me but more for what would come than for what she felt right now. There was nothing I could do about any of it. I'd run out of places to hide. James was careening all over the yard, exclaiming at the treasures he found—a rusted truck, a half-broken wooden spoon that made a lovely sound when beaten upon an old pot, some rope, the rusted front wheel of a bike, a nest of mice under the narrow cement porch. Best of all was an old tree house in the backyard, probably built by some renter in the years since my father's death; it had never been mine.

"Stay off until I check it out," I said, pulling him down from the wooden steps nailed into the tree. I climbed up, and thankfully thestructure seemed sturdy enough. What wasn't could be fixed by a few carefully placed nails.

"Bring the tool box from the truck," I yelled down to Kyle.

"You gotta be kidding. You're doing this right now?"

"Why not?" I asked.

"Hurry, get it!" James was jumping foot to foot on the weeds below. "Mom, can I come up?"


Kyle returned, and soon we were all banging away with hammers and nails. Kyle hit her finger and swore.

I caught her hand. "Hey, I said no more of that."

"Well, it hurt!"

"So? A lot of things hurt. Small words mean a small mind." I'd heard that before, but I couldn't remember where. Maybe in church as a child.

"I don't see what the big deal is. You always swear."

"Not anymore I don't." She couldn't either. That might ruin the plan. "Now toss me another nail." We pounded until I felt it was safe enough. "Just don't lean too far over that window." Even as I spoke, I knew that a really responsible mother would probably board it up. But doing so would completely ruin the fun of having a tree house.

Kyle quickly leaned through the window to check out the danger. "Not that bad. He'd probably only break his neck if he fell."

"I'm not stupid enough to do that," James protested.

"Wait." I held up a hand until I had their attention. "I just thought of something really cool. The best thing about this place is that if the house is too ruined, we can live up here." The kids stared
at me, smiles spreading across their faces.

"Really, Mom?" James bounced with unconstrained energy.

"Of course."

"I get dibs by the door!" Kyle laughed, and that set the rest of us off. Maybe, just maybe, this would work.

"Okay, people," I said, pushing past Kyle and starting down the wood rungs. "Let's see what the house looks like."

I had the key, sent to me by the realtor who'd been trying to either rent or sell the place until I told her a month ago that I'd be coming home. Since I'd cancelled her contract, no one had been here. I'd called the utilities to start service, but they hadn't been sure it would happen before we arrived, and I could only hope I had no broken pipes when things finally got up and running. A Sunday wasn't the best time to move in, especially if I didn't have water or electricity, but I'd packed a few bottles of water to get us through. I needed a shower, but that could wait.

Thankfully the electricity was on, though a lot of light bulbs needed replacing. The house had undergone a few changes in the past twenty years—a wall shortened here, a built-in bookcase added there. A gas fireplace instead of the old wood one. Wallpaper that didn't look half bad graced the tiny living room, but the remainsof what looked like a fire blackened one wall of the kitchen. The kitchen cupboards had been painted at some point, and the stove looked nearly new. I liked the addition of the shelves on either side of the window that overlooked the backyard. I turned on the tap. Nothing. The water bottles would come in handy.

Kyle ran her fingers through the thick layer of dust on the Formica countertop. "Nice," she said, rolling her eyes.

"I can draw on the counter!" James quickly made a huge smiley face, and soon Kyle and I were laughing again.

"It'll be nice once it's all cleaned up," I said as Kyle started down the hallway. "We won't have to worry about turning down our music or smelling the neighbor's cooking."

"Or hear the yelling, or smell that awful smell in the stairwell." James wrinkled his nose.

"But there's only two bedrooms." My feet retraced the steps to where I'd slept for nineteen years of my life. Unlike the rest of the house, these rooms seemed unchanged, except for the color of paintin the small master bedroom. I stepped inside the smaller room, and it was almost as though I'd stepped back in time. Memories slid through my mind, some more vivid than others, and not nearly so black as I expected. The closet was where I used to play with my dolls, and that space near the left wall was where my bed had been and where my mother had occasionally read me stories. The window was where Dante had come to rescue me when I could stand no more of my father's yelling.

I'd have to paint the room, if there was time. Decorate it for James. I'd read to him in the bed, and I'd help him sneak out of the window so we could pretend to run away to the tree house. But I couldn't unpack anything from my truck or the rented trailer I was towing until I cleaned at least enough space for the mattresses. Maybe we'd spend the first night in the tree house after all. James
would love that.

The next thing I knew Kyle was tugging on my arm. "Mom, did you hear me?"

I shook my head. "You and I can share the bigger room. James can have this one."

"Did you zone off again? I'm trying to say that I went downstairs, and there're two more rooms there that are really tiny but are painted kind of nice, and a bigger room that's not exactly finished but it would be okay if we put down some linoleum or something. If we could find it cheap. It'd be good for practicing my dancing. Can I sleep down there in one of the rooms?"

I grinned, glad for the motivation in her voice. If there was one thing Kyle loved besides everything she shouldn't do, it was dancing.

"Sure. You can sleep in the basement, and if you get too scared, you can always come into my bed."

"I'm not going to be scared."

"Okay, then if I get scared, I'll come find you."

She laughed. "Come see."

Apparently my father had made progress on the basement before he died six years ago. He'd had the rooms framed long before I left and put up drywall in one of them, but I'd thought he'd never actually finish. Either he had, or a renter had finished the rooms at a later date.

That the house had been a rental was clear. There were dings in the walls, a few holes in the doors and in the carpet, two missing doorknobs, only minimal light bulbs, and towel rods missing from the bathrooms. None of this mattered. It wasn't as if the children would be staying long enough to grow up here.

I should have come back before.

The thought wouldn't leave me. I should have come to see my mother when she was sick before she died. Tell her I loved her and that I didn't blame her for not protecting me, even though I did, a
little. I knew now what I should have done, but it was useless to worry about the past, about things you couldn't fix. Life was too short for that. Tomorrow was what really mattered. I had to plan for tomorrow.

I stifled a yawn, thinking longingly of a hot shower. I'd slept a few hours last night on the side of the road, but it wasn't enough. It was never enough; I'd felt as though I'd been tired for years. All the choices of my life creeping up on me.

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